You are here

1880s to Present

Potatoes to Ski Slopes: The Power of Outside Economics

Rock Bottom Ranch. Credit: AGCI

From mining to agriculture or from skiing to hiking, the economy of the Roaring Fork Valley has always been closely tied to the region’s geology. The rich mineral veins of silver, coal, or marble associated with this area's geology inspired the establishment of towns such as Aspen and Marble. Potato crops were able to thrive in the soils near Carbondale and Basalt because of appropriate local soil and climate conditions. Even as the economic focus of the area shifted to tourism over the course of the 20th century, the natural assets of the area remain a key driver of revenue.

Ranching is dependent upon availability of open space for grazing. The ski industry relies upon the region's natural slopes and temperatures cold enough to generate snowfall or support snowmaking. Summer sports such as mountain biking, hiking, rafting or fishing are closely tied to the health of local ecosystems, either to support a game animal or provide the scenic vistas visitors seek. Throughout its period of settlement, the Roaring Fork Valley's economy has been firmly rooted in local ecology and geology. The success of marketing these resources however, is linked heavily with the economic, social, and political trends of geographically distant regions.

Navigating Supply and Demand

Economies are based upon a balance of capacity to produce a product with ability to sell a product. If one component or the other is absent, then the product will fail. Whether a trend in economics is driven by availability or marketability varies with time and location. In the Roaring Fork Valley, at the turn of the 20th century, Aspen's economy declined not because silver in the mines ran out, but because the cost of silver dropped rapidly because of a change in government regulation. Similarly, potato production in Carbondale (once the Potato Capitol of the West) experienced a decline after the 1940's not because of a blight or other detriment to crop production, but because a combination of falling national prices for potatoes combined with a shortage of labor led made it difficult to turn a profit on potatoes.

Cultural trends can also influence the economy. Aspen, for example, began resurgence in growth in the late 40's as members of the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division returned to their former training grounds and established public ski resorts. As skiing became an increasingly popular sport and recreational pastime, it became an increasingly profitable venture, allowing the ski industry to create jobs and drawing visitors, some of whom liked the area so much that they chose to purchase second homes in the area. Today, the economic face of the Roaring Fork Valley continues to evolve. The population increase and social changes associated with the economic success of the last few decades have in turn led to changes in the culture, size, and demographics of the Roaring Fork Valley. For example, the high demand for residential land in this area has led to fewer large ranches within the main corridor of the valley. By contrast, there has been an increasing interest in small scale food production in line with a larger, national progression toward increased interest in sustainable agricultural and the “slow food” movement.

While benefiting some goals of residents in the area, growth also brings challenges. As the Roaring Fork Valley becomes an increasingly desirable place to live, residents work to balance a growing population with impacts on local resources. As urban and ex-urban populations continue to grow, what will this mean for the ecological systems that support human life? One way to consider this question is through consideration of energy use and chains of supply.

Global Connection

In today's world a truly local economy, where all goods used are produced in near proximity to one another, is rare. Just as many businesses in the Roaring Fork Valley are intertwined with global trends, so too are many products used locally imported from around the world. Everything from oil prices to the cost of common foods is driven by global trends. The map below shows carbon released in production of goods for export. The arrows point from the country where goods are produced to the country that imports them.

Brain Bug

Since settlement in the late 1880’s, different areas of the Roaring Fork Valley have relied on different assets to draw new residents and generate income. In some cases, such as the mining or oil and gas industry, the economy is based on non-renewable commodities. In other cases, such as hiking or skiing, the economy is based on an experience as commodity, and is in some senses renewable. What are the benefits and downsides to each types of economy? How does each type rely on the local geography?